Darren Sammy is an unassuming cricketer but he has transformed the West Indies team into a winning unit
There’s an invisible force driving West Indies cricket at the moment. There’s something happening with that team that is holding the people of several different countries together, and causing them to do some outrageous things on a cricket ground. And we’re not referring to Chris Gayle’s Gangnam Style celebratory jig.
In the last few months, West Indies have gone from being a team that was ridiculed by those who clung on to a golden past to a team that is showing signs of a brighter future. The team has gone from being one that stronger opponents encourage in a patronising manner to a side that has struck fear into the best units around.
For years, West Indies did not produce one cricketer who nailed down a place, who inspired anything beyond a collection of disparate islands that a majority of the cricket world knew only for rum, pirates and white-sand beaches. No player from the Caribbean took the baton from Brian Lara and ran with it, and there was the serious threat that the next generation, the skinny boys on the beaches of Barbados and in the street-gangs of Kingston would only want to sprint like Bolt and Blake, not bowl like Marshall or bat like King Viv.
Shivnarine Chanderpaul has stood like a rock through the decimation of one of cricket’s great legacies, but it’s a sign of his age that he played in a club game last week alongside his son, Tagenarine. No surprise that the two were hard to dislodge and stitched together an unbroken partnership of 256. But, as much as you love Chanderpaul for what he’s done, he’s an unlikely candidate for a youngster to idolise. For starters, anyone who copied his crab-like stance would end up looking very silly, and not hitting too many balls.
But, quietly, an untelevised revolution has swept the West Indies. Gayle, despite living the good life as a gun for hire in Twenty20 leagues around the world, has returned to the fold, and this has infused the team with a joyousness and credibility that is worth emulating. Darren Bravo has made enormous strides as a Test batsman and given his sheer quality, it’s only a matter of time before he works out how to make it count in the shorter versions.
Sunil Narine had eyebrows touching the ceiling when he fetched $700,000 in the India Premier League auction, but it was instantly apparent that this was money well spent. Today, he’s grown into a spinner that opposition teams are forced to think about ahead of a game, and it’s a sign of his class that batsmen prefer to play him out rather than take chances and fall.
Another cricketer to emerge is Kieron Pollard, who hasn’t yet had the chance to stretch himself enough. His high-impact innings in Twenty20 cricket have come mostly in the dying stages of matches and his underrated bowling is not used as often as it could be. The time when he features more prominently is not far.
Through this all, though, there’s been a streak, an invisible thread binding the team. Invisible, not because it’s been hidden, but because fans, journalists and others have been guilty of not taking one person seriously. Given that he plays the clown so enthusiastically, in some ways it’s not surprising that Darren Sammy has not got the credit he deserves, but the time has come to give the man from St Lucia his due.
“When we left the Caribbean that was the most important thing in our minds, winning this tournament for our fans,” said Sammy with a steely determination belied by the exuberant smile plastered across his boyish face. “We last won silverware in 2004. It is a good opportunity for us to do that here. We’ve been playing well as a team and we have to take it one game at a time.”
It’s been difficult too for fans to fairly gauge Sammy’s worth because he’s a cricketing oddity – not fast enough to be an outright threat with the ball, not polished enough to play as a batsman alone – and it has been cruelly remarked that he’s in the team for his captaincy. When the same was said of Mike Brearley, it was meant as a compliment, for the former England captain was obviously blessed in man-management terms.
What Sammy has accomplished, however, is not unlike what Brearley did, even if the paths taken to get there were completely different. “I just keep everybody cool,” said Sammy. “We have a lot of cool guys so when you’re out there you need to have someone in charge. When I’m out there, I try to get all the senior players involved in decision-making so everyone feels a part of the team. That’s the important thing for us that everyone in the squad feels a part of the team. It’s easy to do that for me, as my character allows me to involve everyone.”
It’s this character in Sammy that has allowed others to grab the headlines, even as the team has made big enough strides to be a serious threat to Sri Lanka, who West Indies next play on Saturday. The obvious change would be to bring back Fidel Edwards, in place of Samuel Badree, given how well Sri Lanka play spin. The West Indies know that one win could fire them into the knockouts. And from there on, all it takes is two good days for one of its big guns.